The prisoners whose sentences could last forever

Crime and Punishment looked unflinchingly at prisoners incarcerated with no end date

Crime and Punishment: Aaron, one of two prisoners the cameras follow at the dismal HM Prison Winchester

Crime and Punishment: Aaron, one of two prisoners the cameras follow at the dismal HM Prison Winchester

 

If you can judge a society by its prisons, as Dostoyevsky, the author of Crime and Punishment, suggested, British society is plainly dysfunctional.

Perhaps you already had some inkling of that, but it’s also the evidence of Crime and Punishment (Channel 4, Monday, 9pm), a sweeping documentary about the UK’s criminal-justice system. Filmed over two years, it covers the system at various stages and from both sides of the law, focusing on police, prosecution, probation, parole and, to begin with, prison.

I wonder early on how unflinching a prison documentary can be that decides to bleep out a torrent of swear words. But the sight of a self-harming prisoner peeling apart his calf muscle, to demonstrate the depth of his new wound, makes me flinch first.

We first see Paul, a wiry inmate convicted of armed robbery, protesting his co-operative manner while threatening to decapitate any guard who looks at him crossways

This is Aaron, one of the two prisoners we follow at the dismal HM Prison Winchester, in southern England, whose sentence is the legal equivalent of locking him up up and throwing away the key. He has been given an imprisonment-for-public-protection sentence, an incarceration with no end date, now stretching into 11 years for committing grievous bodily harm as a teenager.

As with Paul, a wiry fellow public-protection inmate, convicted of armed robbery, whom we first see protesting his positive, co-operative manner while threatening to decapitate any guard who looks at him crossways, these indeterminate sentences can be lengthened for bad behaviour.

As an incentive to reform, it is not well thought out. Aaron, sliced up with scars, puts the matter most sharply: “When you become hopeless, your behaviour becomes dangerously erratic.”

With uncommon fly-on-the-wall access, the programme takes a fascinating close-up view of prison life, pulling back wisely at intervals to supply a wider context. Imprisonments for public protection, introduced at a time of national panic in 2003, and ordered far too profligately, were abolished in 2012, leaving 3,429 British inmates in limbo.

Here, it also leaves prison staff exasperated, with no clear path to reform to satisfy a parole board. “He is never going to make the changes the prison system want him to make, because he’s just not mentally well enough,” Aaron’s mother says when her severely troubled son backslides yet again. “These people are crazy,” says Aaron, not unreasonably, of a panel attempting to move him from hospital, against his assurance of further self-harm.

But this is a crazy-making situation for everyone involved: the prisoners, who see the next 18 months of their lives decided in few bureaucratic minutes; the “custodial managers” and “offender supervisors” whose corporatised job titles belie the antiquated structures in which they work; the probation boards box-ticking through convoluted systems that quash hope for reform. (“What you’re telling us is you’re not safe to release.”)

“The system doesn’t work for him,” one sympathetic, seemingly defeated duty governor says of Aaron. But it clearly doesn’t work for him either.

Like Aaron and Paul, in fact, they’re all trapped in a broken system, with no obvious way out.

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